Apologies for the cliff-hanger with Part 1. I’m not a huge fan of the “To Be Continued” either, but I was running out of time to finish up the post and I didn’t want to skimp on the details. It’s the details that matter most — just as we take such pleasure in the small victories our children achieve.
Ryan and I readied for our big Detroit/Ann Arbor trip. Essentials were packed: Sharks jersey, Hockey Guys, laptop (for checking NHL scores and standings) and, um, yeah, the list of essentials pretty much ended there.
Since his interest in hockey had developed Ryan had spent countless hours watching NHL highlights online and then re-enacting the plays using the Hockey Guys (aka the Greatest Toy Ever Invented). Like many kids on the autism spectrum, imaginative play was something we rarely saw from Ryan as a young child. That’s hard to believe watching him with his Hockey Guys, playing out entire games with the small plastic figurines. He has augmented the experience with a scoreboard (magnetic numbers and letters on an easel that he dragged upstairs himself from where they had been forgotten in the basement) and a spotlight (a small flashlight that he had been given) which he would shine on the player that had just scored.
Imaginative play? Check. And there was so much more detail, but I’ll have to save that for the Hockey Guys’ own much-deserved post.
The flight was easy. I let Ryan use my laptop and he spent the time happily typing up standings from his own imaginary (there’s that word again) hockey league.
We got to our hotel early enough to allow Ryan some play time (Hockey Guys) in the room before we headed out for some dinner and the game. I had arranged to meet my good college friend, S., with whom we would be staying in Ann Arbor, at the Red Wings’ themed restaurant downtown. As we caught up, Ryan scarfed down some fries and took note of the stares he was getting for wearing his Sharks jersey in enemy territory and even tried to engage some of the Detroit fans in conversation.
I nervously eyed the clock, knowing that we had to be in the arena for the opening face-off. Ryan does not like to miss a minute of action. As game time approached, I hurried S. through his dinner so we could make sure not to be late. We made it, settling into our seats a few minutes before game time.
Once there, Ryan tried to make friends with some more of the Red Wings fans around him, ate some pizza, and generally enjoyed himself despite the Sharks losing a close game in a shootout. For him, the hockey game was the highlight of the trip, but I was still looking forward to our time together in Ann Arbor over the next two days.
I managed to get him to sleep quickly once we made it back to the hotel. In the morning he checked the NHL scores, played Hockey Guys, and typed for a while on the laptop before having his favorite breakfast — plain waffles — in the hotel restaurant. From there it was on to Ann Arbor to stay with a very gracious S. but not before a trip to the grocery for some comforts of home — Eggo waffles and V8 Fusion juice, which together have comprised 99% of the breakfasts Ryan has consumed in his life. Even though S.’s house would be unfamiliar to Ryan, I was thrilled to be getting out of the hotel and into an atmosphere that would closer approximate home.
S. was super helpful and accommodating, suggesting all manner of activities for our day off between games. But I knew what Ryan needed. With another big adventure ahead of us Saturday, Friday would be a day for down time and for letting Ryan be Ryan. Plenty of computer time, plenty of Hockey Guys time, followed by a pizza dinner and maybe a drive around town before an early bed time. Quite different from a typical Friday night for me during an Ann Arbor visit, but it was a sacrifice I was thrilled to make because on Saturday I would be taking my son to Michigan Stadium.
It was going to be a long day. Game day traffic is brutal, so S. dropped us by the stadium early enough to beat the rush. One problem: the clock was ticking. Football was not Ryan’s thing. I would have to coax him through this day. I was just hoping the spectacle of such a large crowd would captivate his interest enough that he’d want to stay. But in the back of my mind, I thought we might have to leave by halftime. I had already convinced myself that even if that happened, I would still consider it a victory just but getting him to set foot in the stadium — an effort I wouldn’t have contemplated a few years earlier.
Now, before I go much further into the significance of this moment, you have to understand something about me. If I were to ever have my ashes spread somewhere, it would probably be over Michigan Stadium. I can think of no spot on earth where I would rather spend a bright, crisp fall afternoon. I have season tickets despite living over 600 miles away, just so I’ll always have a seat for any big game that comes around. And I still get chills every time the Michigan Marching Band strikes up the school fight song, The Victors, with 110,000 people simultaneously raising an arm to each “Hail!”.
As soon as we entered the stadium, Ryan was taken with the sheer size of the crowd, much as I hoped he would. He seemed to enjoy the band’s entrance, even if he didn’t quite take part in the singing of the fight song. Much to my delight, he actually showed interest in the game, asking me about the scoring and cheering the big plays along with the crowd. Halftime came and went without asking to leave.
In the third quarter, I was snapping photos and texting updates to Veronica, who was off with Riley on an adventure of their own, when Ryan did something that stopped me in my tracks.
There was my son, up on his feet, thrusting an arm in the air and shouting along to The Victors. I dialed Veronica, but I couldn’t speak. I was sobbing. Uncontrollable crocodile tears. As Michigan had not yet blown its lead and lost the game, I’m sure the people around me were wondering why I was suddenly bawling in the seats. On the phone I finally mumbled something to Veronica about Ryan singing along and how it was one of the happiest moments of my life. Luckily, I had managed to capture a picture.
Michigan would go on to lose the game, a forgettable loss in a forgettable season for perhaps every Michigan fan in attendance but me. I have been lucky enough to attend many of Michigan’s most memorable performances over the past 20-plus seasons, from Desmond Howard diving to beat Notre Dame and striking the Heisman pose, to Charles Woodson taking a punt back, to Denard Robinson leading a miracle comeback against the Irish just this past fall. But that Purdue game will always have a special place in my memory bank simply because of what it meant to share it with my son.
And share it we did — every last play. The game ran nearly four hours, but Ryan hung in to the very end. Only when Michigan lined up for a two-point conversion attempt in the final minutes did he grow concerned.
“Dad if they score does the game go to overtime?”
When I told him yes, he yelled “then I don’t want them to make it!!!!” drawing laughter from our section.
Knowing the kind of year Michigan was having, I told him not to worry.
When the game ended, we posed for another picture in the quickly emptying stadium. It was perhaps the biggest smile I’d ever had after a Michigan loss. We flew home the next morning and just like that, the trip was complete. Four days, three nights, two flights, two games, two different beds, countless routines interrupted, two losses, zero meltdowns …
… plus memories to last a lifetime and the courage to try other, bigger adventures.